Q&A: Mark Webber


Credit: Jim Hunter

Last week, I was given an unbelievable opportunity to speak with one of the best known Formula One drivers of the last 15 years.

Mark Webber visited the Cheap Street Church in Sherborne, Dorset, on Wednesday to take part in an event to promote his autobiography Aussie Grit.

As a news reporter at the Western Gazette, which covers Sherborne, one of my editors, knowing my passion for motor racing and who had seen that Mark was to visit the town, urged me to get in touch with the event’s organiser and try to set up an interview.

Surreal as the premise seemed, I made contact and, to my surprise, was told that it would be fine to interview Mark before the event.

As someone whose ultimate dream is to become a motorsport journalist and who counts themselves as a huge Webber fan, the idea of a 1-2-1 chat with him seemed so fanciful that I only allowed myself to believe that it would happen when I ventured into the building and shook his hand.

Below is a transcript of the full, unedited eight minute chat, where we touched upon multiple topics, including Le Mans, the current state of Formula One and his work as a pundit.

Q: Mark, the main reason you are here in Sherborne this evening is to promote your book, so I’ll start with that. How much did you enjoy putting the book together and taking the opportunity to tell your story to the public?

MW: “Well it’s not a five minute job, that’s for sure. A book is a big undertaking and probably when I got into it I thought I’d definitely opened a can of worms trying to get everything right. There’s so many side alleys you can go down in terms of pulling and constructing the whole book together and all the individuals and characters you met along the way, where they all fit in and where you introduce them, but that’s why I had good people help me.

“It’s all my words, trying to put it all out there and what I really went through, so I’m happy it’s been received well because of the fact that I think it’s brought people closer to the sport. It’s given them a nice knowledge of the sport. It is my journey if you like but it’s also a very behind-the-scenes look at the sport itself and Formula One, so that seems to have gone down well.”

Q: It’s now just a couple of weeks until Le Mans. How do you feel your preparations are going and how confident are you that you can go one better than last year?

MW: “We’re as confident as we could be with that race, but there are landmines everywhere and we’re going to try and thread the needle for 24 hours and make sure the car is there at the end and in good health. We’ve got a huge, huge week coming up, or huge two weeks coming up. We’ve got a pre-test coming up at the weekend and then another big week and the build up to the race. All the drivers are in good shape.

“We’re ready to go, we’ve prepped well, we’ve practiced pit stops until we’re blue in the face, we’ve done all the preparation which you have to do because bear in mind when you’re tired that there’s little errors that can creep in at two, three, four in the morning, so it’s a tough race and that’s why we’re really keen to do the business this year.”

Q: We saw all of the major LMP1 runners hit trouble at Spa in the last race. How much will attrition be a factor at Le Mans?

MW: “You’re right, there was a lot of attrition at Spa and that will probably be there at Le Mans, but we’re really hopeful that we won’t be part of that. We want to have a very, very boring race and try to conserve everything very well and have fuel and tyres and driver changes, and keep the car out of the garage and out of the gravel, and they’re the two key things that we’ve got to do.”

Q: As someone who has vast experience of endurance racing and Formula One, what would you say are the key differences between endurance racing and Formula One?

MW: “Obviously endurance racing’s very, very long. You race at night and you have teammates, obviously you’ve got to share the car, so that’s a huge difference straight away. Formula One is, well was, probably a bit more intense in terms of pace and pushing really, really hard for two hours, but now obviously you’ve got to look out for the tyres and nurse the Pirelli situation which obviously is not the most rewarding for the drivers at the moment. The categories have probably converged as close as they’ve ever been for pace so there’s not a huge amount of difference once you get away from the obvious ones like night driving, endurance and sharing the car, it’s pretty similar.”

Q: So with that in mind, is the WEC the best category to replicate the thrill of Formula One for you?

MW: “After F1, it was very important for me to continue for a little bit longer, and this was the best category. When Porsche ring you up, that’s one of the best phone calls any racing driver can get, that they’d love you to drive one of our cars and would you be available? I was like ‘yeah, I will be, let’s have a chat and go from there’. It worked out well timing wise for me off the back of F1 and picking up a sports car career with Porsche was sensational.

I wasn’t leaving without asking for a pic!

Q: What is your take on how the 2016 F1 season has gone so far?

MW: “Well Nico’s off to a phenomenal start. He obviously got maximum points at the start and Lewis hasn’t quite hit his straps yet, but he’s shown the flashes of pace that you’d expect from him. He hasn’t been able to convert some of his poles which is unlike him, but he’s had his fair share of unreliability as well, and Nico’s been extremely reliable, finished all the races except Barcelona and without any hiccups really apart from Monaco. For Lewis, it was a big win in Monaco and got him back up there, and Red Bull are coming back as well now. Ferrari have been the most disappointing team so far, they haven’t really hit their straps at all with Sebastian and Kimi, but I predict they’ll get their season underway in Canada.”

Q: On the subject of Monaco, Daniel Ricciardo’s someone you know well. How well do you expect him to bounce back from what happened to him there, and in Barcelona?

MW: “He’ll bounce back. It’s part of the game unfortunately, and adversity comes with it. You have to take the big right hook on the chin sometimes, which is tough, and he’s had a couple of tricky weekends where he feels that he did everything he could, and that’s why it’s a bitter pill to swallow for a driver when you do everything you can and you don’t get the result that you deserve which can be frustrating, but he’ll bounce back. He’s the form driver of the year in terms of delivering and he can’t do any more than that, so he’ll be back.”

Q: You’ve enjoyed many years in the cockpit in Formula One, but this year you’re looking at things from another angle and working as a pundit for Channel 4. How have you enjoyed that so far?

MW: “Good fun. I’m enjoying it. It’s not stressful at all, racing was stressful and they were long days, and I was being a professional in that space let’s say, but with TV it’s a little bit more dynamic, also live TV is a bit of a buzz obviously because the story’s evolving while we’re there so that’s cool. I don’t class myself as a journalist. I don’t find myself getting in there and digging and getting stories, I’m just talking about what’s happening and being a pundit, I’m in a pretty good position to talk about driver attitudes, driver skills and scenarios that are happening and what the sport throws at the guys, so that’s good to give the fans at home a bit of an insight.”

Q: You mention the lack of stress involved, so in a strange way is it more enjoyable being a pundit and not having to worry about that pressure?

MW: “I enjoy my racing obviously. That was important and I did enjoy that, but I can’t do that forever so what do I do? I like my surfboard, but I can’t do that every day of the week and I can’t make any money on my surfboard either, so I’ve got to do something else, and it’s good. David Coulthard and I get on well, we’re good friends and it’s just a good team, so we can have some fun with it, but there’s also a serious side of the sport that we’ve got to try and relay back to the viewers at home as best we can. We don’t feel we have competition, we’re not arrogant with that as a crew, we just want to keep doing better ourselves and getting the most out of the coverage.”

I have written three articles for the Western Gazette using quotes from my interview with Mark, all of which can be found here.

I would also like to place on record my thanks to Wayne Winstone of Winstone’s Books in Sherborne, who organised last Wednesday’s event and who kindly allowed me to speak with Mark beforehand.

Stephen D’Albiac

Driver Ratings: 2016 Australian Grand Prix


Credit: Formula1.com

In the first of what is planned to be a recurring feature throughout the 2016 season, I will give a brief summary of each driver’s race and give them a score out of ten. The scores will be added up throughout the season and will be used to calculate both mid-season and end of season driver rankings.

44) Lewis Hamilton (7/10) – Strong recovery following an awful start that left the polesitter sixth at the end of the first lap. Good use of strategy by his Mercedes team to help him back to second.

6) Nico Rosberg (7/10) – A fully deserved fourth win in a row for Rosberg. Kept calm after a poor start to jump Raikkonen in the pits before calmly staying within reach of Vettel to allow himself to take the lead when the German pitted.

5) Sebastian Vettel (7/10) – Strong drive from the four-time champion. Only deprived of victory through a poor call on strategy by Ferrari under the red flag. Mistake when chasing Hamilton towards the end the only blip in an otherwise fine performance.

7) Kimi Raikkonen (6/10) – Engine failure cost Raikkonen the chance of a podium finish after a strong first stint that saw him run second to teammate Vettel.

77) Valtteri Bottas (5/10) – An underwhelming first weekend of the season for the highly rated Finn. A poor showing in qualifying was followed by a low key run in the race that deserved little more than his eighth place finish.

19) Felipe Massa (6/10) – A solid start to the season for the veteran Brazilian, whose fifth place was the most that could have been achieved with a car that was lacking in ultimate pace.

3) Daniel Ricciardo (7/10) – The home favourite gave the locals plenty to cheer with a battling drive that saw him pull off several overtakes and set fastest lap en route to a charging fourth place.

26) Daniil Kvyat (5/10) – An inauspicious start to the season for the Russian, who failed to get underway after stopping short of his grid box and forcing the first start to be abandoned. Had already suffered a difficult Saturday after qualifying a disappointing 18th.

11) Sergio Perez (5/10) – Perez had looked like picking up where he left off in 2015 by outqualifying teammate Hulkenberg, but slipped behind the German at the start before late race brake troubles left him 13th.

27) Nico Hulkenberg (6/10) – A decent showing for Hulkenberg who, while lacking in race pace, started his season with a decent haul of points by coming home seventh.

20) Kevin Magnussen (6/10) – A strong recovery by Magnussen to fight back to 12th after an opening lap puncture, but the Dane struggled to assert himself in Melbourne having been outqualified by rookie teammate Palmer on Saturday.

30) Jolyon Palmer (7/10) – Britain’s latest Grand Prix driver enjoyed a strong debut, surprisingly outqualifying Renault teammate Magnussen before showing fine racecraft to make life difficult for several faster cars who came up behind him.

33) Max Verstappen (6/10) – The 18-year-old showed his petulance after a poor pit stop dropped him behind teammate Sainz Jr. Having qualified a stunning fifth, the Dutchman will be disappointed with tenth place after a spin late in the race.

55) Carlos Sainz Jr (6/10) – A solid drive by the Spanish youngster to make the most of a well-balanced Toro Rosso. A questionable strategy choice following the red flag gave him a ninth place finish which was less than he deserved.

12) Felipe Nasr (5/10) – On the evidence of Melbourne, Sauber have a lot of work to do to compete in the midfield this year, with Nasr enjoying an almost anonymous run to 15th place.

9) Marcus Ericsson (5/10) – A day to forget for the second Sauber driver, who was handed a drive-through penalty after his mechanics carried working on his car too late during the red flag before the Swede retired with driveshaft failure.

14) Fernando Alonso (6/10) – The main thing is that Alonso walked out of Albert Park in one piece after a terrifying collision with Gutierrez that sent him rolling through the gravel and cost him a possible points finished.

22) Jenson Button (6/10) – A 14th place finish was poor reward for Button who was close to Alonso’s pace all weekend before a wrong call by McLaren to fit his car with super-soft tyres after the red flag dropped him out of contention.

93) Pascal Wehrlein (7/10) – DTM champion Wehrlein proved why he was given his F1 bow by Manor with a highly impressive first stint that saw him running in the midfield and keeping pace with stronger packages.

88) Rio Haryanto (6/10) – A decent debut for the Indonesian rookie who outqualified Wehrlein on Saturday before mechanical problems during the red flag brought his first Grand Prix to a premature end.

8) Romain Grosjean (8/10) – Driver of the Day. Grosjean produced a masterful display to run non-stop from the red flag and keep a train of cars at bay to finish a remarkable sixth on Haas’ debut.

21) Esteban Gutierrez (5/10) – Gutierrez’s return to the Formula One grid with Haas will be remembered more for his role in Alonso’s horrifying crash than for his performance, which saw him languishing behind Grosjean all weekend.

Stephen D’Albiac

Elimination-style qualifying – another sorry mess


News that plans to introduce a new “elimination-style” qualifying system to Formula One will be delayed until at least the Spanish Grand Prix is just another clear indication of the haphazard and disorganised world in which the rulemakers of the sport operate.

The new system, which will see drivers eliminated at 90 second intervals throughout three segments of qualifying until just two remain on track for the final part of Q3, came about as a bombshell thrust upon the fans and the media just last week, while the first pre-season test was underway.

It immediately drew the ire of fans across the internet and social media, and this latest hiccough in F1’s attempt to push through an ill thought-out and unwanted system is likely to do nothing but further get the backs of the viewing public up.

The question that needs to be asked is why it took until just three weeks before the start of the season for this idea to be mooted? Why was this system not made public when there was still time to create the software needed for it to be a viable television spectacle?

There has been three months in which to implement this and ensure that everything is up and running in time for Melbourne, yet the Strategy Group appears to have thought this up in a manner reminiscent of a university student loading up Microsoft Word the day before an important assignment is due to be submitted.

Introducing a new and convoluted system in Spain is not the way Formula One should be going about things. Rule changes, unless for safety reasons, should never take place during a season. By moving the goalposts in the middle of the championship, it risks damaging the integrity of the series’ position as the pinnacle of motorsport.

While you would be hard pressed to find someone who felt that the qualifying system needed changing at all, now that it appears that we are likely to get it, the only logical step is to delay its introduction to 2017, when all of the ins and outs have been explored and all of the software put in place to allow it to run as smoothly as possible.

New qualifying format is fundamentally flawed

That aside, many fans are up in arms at this new system, and it is easy to see why.

One very simple fact is that the current qualifying format has been one of the great success stories of the Grand Prix weekend since its introduction in 2006. It provides every driver on the grid with a fair chance to achieve the best result possible, and, with between 12 and 18 minutes to get things right depending on the session, gives them ample time to get as far up the grid as possible.

The beauty of the current system is that it’s simple, easy to understand, yet also rewards those who are on the ball. The dying seconds of Q3 has become one of the most thrilling parts of the weekend, more so than ever in the last two seasons as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg exchange blows in one of many fights for pole position.

When numerous teams are competitive, it is not uncommon for as many as four or five drivers to be in the hunt for pole right up to the end of the session, each of those men’s final laps crucial in making the difference between clear track at the start of Sunday’s Grand Prix or an opening stint stuck in traffic.

Under the new system, the final 90 seconds of qualifying will only ever be contested between two cars. While drama will most certainly not be lacking when you have a pair of closely matched cars vying for honours, it will rob the viewer of the possibility of a three or four-way fight for pole.

That also assumes that the only aspect that piques the viewer’s interest is who starts in front. Some of the most thrilling moments of qualifying have come when an unfancied runner suddenly pops up at the sharp end right at the end of the session. This will now be lost, as a Force India or Toro Rosso driver clawing their way into the top five will be known for several minutes rather than coming out of nowhere in one short, sharp jab.

One of the main arguments made by proponents of the new system are that it will mean an end to the dead time at the start of qualifying when few cars venture out onto track.

Mercedes and Ferrari may appear on circuit in the opening two minutes of Q1, but does anyone truly believe that when they pop in a lap fast enough to see them through they will continue to circulate for the remainder of the session?

You may see more of the midfield scrappers, but with no increase in the sets of tyres that teams can use, it is likely that – first lap banker aside – it will only be when a driver becomes in danger of elimination that we will see him on track again.

In some cases, when a driver knows he will be unable to improve his time and avoid elimination, viewers will be treated to the sight of a defeated car cruising into the pit lane, a move that is hardly likely to increase tension.

Is the current system perfect?

While this post may appear as a blanket opposition to any change to the qualifying format, one change that I would advocate to the current system is to remove the restriction forcing the top ten to start the race on the tyres on which they set their best lap in Q2.

Allow drivers free use of tyres in qualifying, free choice of which rubber they start the race on and guarantee everyone a new set of both compounds they choose to run on, and you automatically open the door to the possibility of differing strategies at the sharp end of the grid.

Imagine the possibility of Lewis Hamilton at the front of the grid on fresh, soft tyres, Nico Rosberg alongside him on new mediums, with both men given the freedom of running their own race without having to make compromises on a Saturday afternoon.

Now that would be worth watching.

The last thing F1 needs is yet another rules overhaul


Those following testing in Barcelona this week only have to look at the lap times to see that there has been a clear step forward in speed.

We are still nowhere near seeing the true potential of any of this year’s cars, but that has not stopped Sebastian Vettel and Nico Hulkenberg lapping already more than a second under Nico Rosberg’s pole time for last year’s Spanish Grand Prix.

Just three weeks remain until the start of the third season of the current hybrid era, a period that has been crying out for stability while the teams continue to conquer an array of new technology that, once properly honed, should naturally provide us with the fastest cars that have ever graced the sport.

Yet while the need for time and patience is staring the rulemakers in the face, it seems as though we are about to have another handful of changes thrown our way.

News that plans to rip up the rulebook and introduce yet another set of regulations aimed at producing high-performance cars and make them seconds faster will most likely get the go ahead for the 2017 season is disappointing, but not unsurprising, given the manner in which we have seen the F1 Strategy Group and F1 Commission work in recent years.

These, after all, are the same bodies that brought us double points, the thankfully never introduced standing restarts and are now attempting to have a new “elimination” style qualifying system – a part of the Grand Prix weekend that did not need changing – rubberstamped in time for Melbourne.

Once we see the class of 2016 truly unleashed, those already improved times will only tumble further. A step forward of between two and three seconds looks more than achievable. Take into account the inevitable development of the cars over the course of this season and into next, and come 2017 they will be faster still.

This would be more than achievable by sticking to the set of regulations that exist now, not by forcing teams that are already strapped for cash to spend millions building new cars that, while likely to increase speeds, will be more aero-dependant and almost certain to harm the quality of the racing.

Formula One is far from in rude health. Fans are being turned off for a number of reasons, chief among them the domination of the Mercedes team that, at first glance, is likely to continue into 2016.

Yet the fact remains that when naturally aspirated V10 engines made way for hybrid power in 2014, the Silver Arrows simply did the best job with the set of rules that each person in the paddock was given.

Single team superiority has always existed in F1. Each decade is underpinned by an era in which one manufacturer was better than the rest.

It started with Alfa Romeo in the 1950s, before Lotus took over in the sixties and again in the seventies. The late 1980s saw McLaren in a class of their own, before Williams dominated the nineties and Ferrari ruled the early 2000s. Entertaining it may not always be when we are in the midst of such a spell, but history dictates that a dominant team is always caught.

Mercedes may not be beaten this year, but they will be eventually. If the current rules remain, the laws of diminishing returns will take over and they will be caught. Completely overhaul the regulations, and what’s to say that they won’t simply steal another march on the opposition, aided by their vast reserves of wealth, and pull even further ahead of everyone else?

Formula One is crying out for changes that encourage more competition, but by going after the technical regulations, it is its own product that is being harmed.

One idea would be a complete overhaul on the way in which prize money is distributed, scrapping payments to constructors just for being there longer than everyone else and ensuring that all teams receive a fair slice of the cake for their efforts.

Testing is another aspect that requires urgent attention, with an increase in pre-season running needed so that teams no longer turn up in Melbourne still battling to get to grips with their new cars.

The number of engines available to each driver over a season is also in need of reassessment, as are the senseless grid penalties handed down to anyone who dares go over their allotted amount.

These are changes that would be pure and easy to implement with the right people in charge. It would result in a more competitive sport as the gulf in class closes up, and in turn would get people watching again, but instead a combination of yet another aerodynamic revolution and laborious gimmicks such as a Driver of the Day award appear set to win the day.

If those at the top remained sensible and focused on promoting the fact that the current hybrid powerplants are some of the most impressive innovations seen in the history of the motor car, did not use the media to publicly lambast their own product and stopped suggesting laughable ideas in a futile bid to “improve the show”, maybe, just maybe, the sport would not be in its current predicament.

Someone just needs to hand them the memo.

Stephen D’Albiac

NOTE: I will be writing a series of follow-up blogs in the coming days about the changes that I would make to Formula One. Stay tuned!

Six reasons to look forward to F1 2015

With the start of the 2015 Formula One season just ten weeks away, here are just six of the many reasons to get excited ahead of the new campaign.

The revival of the McLaren-Honda partnership

Undoubtedly the most talked about change for 2015 is the return of the legendary McLaren-Honda partnership that was made so famous in the days of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

An iconic partnership that stirs memories and emotions among motorsport fans across the world, McLaren has returned to the engine supplier that served it so well between 1988 and 1992 as it looks to make its way back to the very pinnacle of the sport after two disappointing and winless years.

While the relationship with Mercedes that spanned two decades brought much success to Woking, the marriage between the two had fizzled out over recent years following the Silver Arrows’ decision to take over its own team, making a change of scenery a wise move for all concerned.

Much has changed since the partnership’s previous incarnation, but with the return of Fernando Alonso from Ferrari to join the vastly experienced Jenson Button, allied with the increased contribution of Peter Prodromou – the aerodynamicist that was so influential in Red Bull’s success – and the marked signs of improvement towards the end of last season, if Honda can produce a turbo unit worthy of its legendary efforts of the past, few would bet against the team challenging at the sharp end.

Hamilton v Rosberg: Part II


Despite Mercedes’ systematic obliteration of the field throughout 2014, sweeping all before them on their way to a record 16 wins, the title race reached a thrilling climax in Abu Dhabi thanks to the titanic duel between eventual champion Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

With a refreshing policy from the pit wall allowing the two to fight it out on track, there was precious little between the pair on race days, leading to thrilling scraps for victory on several occasions, most notably when Hamilton just edged out Rosberg following a mammoth race-long tussle in Bahrain.

While Hamilton emerged ahead more often than not on race day, Rosberg’s superior qualifying pace and consistency ensured he was always a threat to his teammate, and with the experience of having fought for a championship now firmly under his belt, the scene is set for the pair to resume her personal scrap in the new season.

Williams’ renaissance


Without question the feel-good story of 2014, the return to form of the Williams team after several years in the doldrums was much welcomed by all.

Through a combination of a strong driver pairing in Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa, the pure grunt of Mercedes horsepower behind them and a substantial boost in prize money owing to their third place finish in the championship, Williams now has a perfect platform on which to build an even better challenger in 2015, and if the team can continue its steady rise back to the front, they look well placed for a return to the top step of the podium in the near future.

Mexico’s return


One of the highlights of the 2015 calendar is the return of the Mexican Grand Prix at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez after a 23-year absence.

With the success of Sergio Perez having reignited interest in the sport in the country – borne out by the hordes of Mexican fans who make the trip to Austin each year – the race looks set to be a welcome return to a classic venue that looks set to pose a significant challenge to the drivers.

Although the circuit will have undergone a facelift to bring it up to the standards of modern F1 by the time the Grand Prix circus arrives in town – including the unfortunate loss of the legendary Peraltada corner – as the successful return of Austria last year shows, when you take the sport back to areas with vast history and strong support, the rewards are plentiful.

Fresh blood at Ferrari


Embarrassing isn’t a strong enough word to describe Ferrari’s 2014 campaign.

Whichever way you analyse the Prancing Horse’s fortunes of last year, failure lurks around every corner, be it the inability to provide a star-studded line-up of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen with a car worthy of their talents, its pitiful attempt at building a power unit even vaguely competitive in comparison with Mercedes or the constant hiring and firing behind the scenes, it was the Scuderia’s first winless season since 1993 and a blot in the vast history books of the team from Maranello.

Now, with Alonso leaving to be replaced by Sebastian Vettel, the first car overseen by James Allison, who brings with him a great pedigree from his Lotus days and a whole raft of new team personnel, 2015 heralds a new era for Ferrari, and whether a clean slate can spark the return of the sport’s most famous team to the sharp end or see fortunes continue to decline will be one of the big talking points as the year progresses.

And…more great racing


Despite the deafening criticism of the new power units that overshadowed the start of last season, once the initial cries of discontent had settled down, F1 showed that it had lost none of its ability to throw up a feast of on-track action, with Bahrain, Canada and Hungary in particular producing three of the most memorable races of recent times.

With the turbo era now entering its second year, there seems no reason to believe that the on-track product won’t continue to go from strength to strength, and if any of the frontrunners is able to pose a credible threat to the dominance of Mercedes, the wheel-to-wheel action should be as good as ever.

F1 pre-season testing – what to expect

Pre-season testing is an exciting time in the Formula One calendar. It is the first chance for fans to see the new cars in action, the first chance to see some drivers at their new teams, but more importantly it is the first time a wheel has been turned in anger since the chequered flag fell at Interlagos two months ago and the realisation that the new season is just over the horizon.

With just nine days until the first test gets underway, here are some of the things to look out for over the coming weeks.

Times aren’t everything
While the teams will be pushing to see how good their new cars are, it is a very dangerous thing to take the timesheets as gospel at this stage. Teams will be running all sorts of different fuel loads, tyre compounds and aero packages as they look to test every component of their new challengers.

For example, some teams in the midfield might deliberately run with low fuel in an attempt to appear more competitive than they actually are. This was a ploy notably tried by Sauber in 2010 in an attempt to gain sponsorship. On the other hand, some of the bigger teams may run with heavy fuel loads and hide their true pace.

The best way to gauge how fast the new cars are is to look at a team’s long-run pace compared to its rivals. This generally gives a more accurate reading of a team’s performance than looking at the times. While looking at this won’t give a clear-cut picture of how each outfit stands, it can definitely give an indication of what to expect before Melbourne.

Varying track conditions
Unlike a Grand Prix weekend, where 90-minute sessions are the norm, a test session lasts all day. With temperatures rising and then falling again as the day goes on you could end up with lap times being much faster at the beginning of the day than the end, or vice versa. Therefore the running order can easily be distorted if a team stays in the garage when the track is at its best, so it’s worth looking out for when the best times were set and who was on track at that time.

In addition, if rain hits the track during the day the lap charts could give some indication as to how each team is looking in the wet, and could give an idea as to what could happen when the weather inevitably affects the running at some point during the season.

Barcelona a better indicator than Jerez
The Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona is widely accepted as one of the best indicators of a car’s performance. As a track that incorporates a mix of fast, medium and slow corners as well as a couple of long straights, it is a true all-rounder.

Therefore, if a team is off the pace at Barcelona, it is more likely to be a sign of a poor car than at Jerez, which isn’t as good a barometer of overall performance as its Spanish counterpart.

Watch out for interviews
Interviews can give a great indication of how good a team is looking ahead of the first race. While drivers and team principals will be hesitant to give too much away to their rivals, if they are refusing to talk to the media or stating that are still trying understand the car, as was the case with Ferrari last year, it could be a sign that a team is struggling.

On the flip side, if an outfit that isn’t troubling the timesheets but is subtly talking up their prospects, such as saying they are happy with the progress of their car and publicly stating they are where they wanted to be, it is generally a sign that they are sandbagging and will be right in the mix when the season begins.

Look out for the drivers
With each team allowed to run only one car per day during testing, you generally won’t see teammates run on the same day. Therefore it is best to check the times of both race drivers in a team to see how they are shaping up.

This will be particularly interesting in the cases of Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton, as it will give fans a chance to see how well they are adapting to their new teams. It also applies in the case of rookies such as Esteban Gutierrez and Valtteri Bottas as it will be the first chance to see how they stack up against more experienced teammates.

Looking at all these different factors can help give a much better idea of who’s hot and who’s not. And with just nine days to go until the cars fire up in Jerez, there is not long to go until we get the first indications about who stands where.

Stephen D’Albiac

Formula One’s big calendar mess

With just over two months to go until the start of the new Formula One season we are still no nearer to knowing the definitive calendar for the year. Doubts still remain over whether the Nurburgring will be able to host the German Grand Prix, while the saga over whether there will be a 20th race or not is still rumbling on.

Bernie Ecclestone has said that there may not even be a confirmed schedule until after the season starts. Speaking to ESPN about the German Grand Prix situation, Ecclestone said: “We can decide once the season has started.”

“The trouble is the people that used to be there [at the Nurburgring] have gone. They haven’t got enough money.”

While it may not seem like much, the problems surrounding the Nurburgring have not sprung up overnight. There have been concerns over the financial state of the circuit – which shares the German Grand Prix with the Hockenheimring – for some time, and there has been ample opportunity to sort out whether it is in a position to be able to host a race or not.

An agreement could have been reached some time ago, and the hold-up is not only unnecessary but also makes things difficult for those who want to buy tickets and organise a visit to the Grand Prix. As more time goes on without any form of confirmation, it becomes more likely that those who planned on attending the race in Germany will decide instead to go to another race, such as those in Hungary or Belgium, which means that not only will the German fans have to pay more and travel further to attend a Grand Prix, but the circuit will also lose out through reduced ticket sales.

It creates a sad situation whereby the only winner will be Bernie himself, an all too familiar sight in this day and age, and one by which the image of Formula One in Germany and elsewhere risks becoming damaged.

The other big concern is the question over whether there will be a 20th race or not, after the scheduled New Jersey race was postponed until 2014 late last year. Despite Ecclestone saying that there were only likely to be 19 races this year, there is no doubt that he would like there to be an extra round as there is money to be made through securing another race.

It is reasonable to assume that is part of the reason for the delay in announcing the final schedule. Bernie is notorious for sending out mixed messages to get what he wants, and by saying there will likely be 19 races his comments can easily be seen as a ploy to get interested parties to agree a fee with him to host a Grand Prix.

However, that does not justify why it has taken so long for the 20th race, happening or not, to be cleared up. New Jersey dropped off the calendar in October, and the provisional calendar with a slot for an unnamed European round was published by the FIA in the first week of December. That has given FOM plenty of time to find a replacement and confirm the situation one way or the other.

It isn’t as though there are a shortage of options. Red Bull were interested in using their circuit in Austria to host a Grand Prix, while talks to bring races to Turkey and France have also taken place. There should have been a deadline in place to ensure that something concrete was confirmed by now, and the possibility of not having a definitive calendar in place before the season starts should have been avoided at all costs. The fact that such a race is likely to be a stopgap before New Jersey and Russia join the schedule in 2014 makes it even more baffling that an agreement is yet to be reached.

Whatever the reasons for the delay, it is farcical that F1 has not been able to organise a schedule for the season by now. You wouldn’t start the football season with the fixture list unfinished, you wouldn’t start the tennis season with the International Tennis Federation trying to find a date for Wimbledon, so it’s baffling for anyone to try and justify why FOM have not been able to guarantee that something as simple as a list of races and the dates on which they are due to take place is put together before the racing gets underway.

For the good of the sport, this situation needs sorting as soon as possible, or Formula One risks being left with egg on its face in a very public manner.

Stephen D’Albiac

Why motorsport needs more winter action

As a motorsport fan the winter months can leave you with a big car-shaped hole in your life. With virtually every major racing series in the world running through the European summer the result is, with the exception of some minor series, the petrolhead is left with precious little to whet the appetite for a large portion of the year.

Since the demise of A1GP and GP2 Asia left the racing world devoid of any major single-seater action over the winter, it means the only real action left to enjoy at this time of year is standalone events such as the Dakar Rally and the Dubai 24 Hours.

Whilst it could be argued that it is slightly selfish to be bemoaning the lack of winter championships given that we have recently enjoyed the longest Formula One season ever, there is an argument to be had from a fans point of view to put on more events in the European ‘off-season’.

In football major tournaments such as the World Cup and European Championships take centre stage once the domestic season is finished. Cricket and rugby fans can look forward to watching their national teams tour overseas, whilst the likes of tennis and golf run tournaments all year round. With that in mind, you can’t help but feel that motorsport could do more to fill the entire calendar.

A1GP was a winter hit with the fans before the money ran out

Formula One is and probably always will remain the pinnacle of motorsport, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for something to fill the gap once the garages are locked up for the winter. A1GP did a good job of filling that void for a while, and with better management would almost certainly still be going from strength to strength. Although short lived, it proved that it was possible to run a series during the winter and bring in the crowds.

Although the climate means a lot of Europe is firmly out of action for winter competition, areas such as the Middle East, Oceania and South America all have the facilities capable of hosting such championships. By running a series like A1GP from September through to April or May, and avoiding F1 weekends, you could fit in a couple of European rounds at the beginning and the end of the season and then travel to warmer climbs in the winter. Therefore, if run properly it would make sense for someone to try and resurrect a similar championship.

In addition, it would also make sense for a lot of non-European countries to switch their domestic series to the winter. By running through the European off-season it would mean avoiding clashes with the likes of F1 and the World Touring Car Championship, meaning that they would be more likely to get local attention, get more favourable TV coverage and attract drivers who would otherwise be tied up with a European series, which in turn would improve the quality of the championship and improve the domestic infrastructure.

The issue of drivers is an very valid argument for increasing the amount of winter action, particularly in the case of those making their way through the junior ranks. With no championships of any note for a large part of the year, it means they are starved of any meaningful competition for a large period of time, which can only be detrimental to their education as racing drivers. It’s the equivalent of an academy footballer making his way in the game not being able to play a competitive match for six months.

If those drivers had the option of competing in a championship at the standard of GP2 or World Series by Renault during the winter, or simply competing in a local series or doing some touring car racing, it would allow them to remain race-sharp and gain more experience, which can only help them in their development and make them better drivers. Another added bonus would be that when the top drivers graduate to Formula One, they are more experienced and better prepared for competition at the highest level.

With that considered, motorsport could benefit a great deal from making more available to everyone during the winter months. With more action for the petrolhead to enjoy, more opportunity for drivers to compete and more exposure for the sport, it means everyone is happy, and that can only be a positive.

Stephen D’Albiac